Organizers Feed Santa Cruz: Food Insecurity in the United States

According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a widely accepted physiological concept, food, water, and rest are among the most important basic needs necessary for human survival and lay the foundation of the pyramid of human needs that climb: safety, love and belonging, esteem, and eventual self-fulfillment. If a person’s potential to reach fulfillment, the feeling of purpose and satisfaction that is associated with happiness and success, relies on their ability to first find satisfactory amounts of food and water and get enough sleep, why do local city governments within the United States like Santa Cruz, California not prioritize eliminating food insecurity? Not only would access to enough nutritious food increase citizens’ quality of life, but communities would be able to progress more efficiently with the help of members who previously were occupied with where their next meal would come from.

Santa Cruz

Tent cities in nooks of the city and hidden in the forest, bustling blocks lined with parked RVs, and lone campers along the highway and train tracks signify the large population of houseless people who call this sunny beachside town ‘home.’ And yet, the city council of Santa Cruz, California  has made little to no effort to support its houseless citizens who struggle with food insecurity. As of January 2017, 1,204 people reported experiencing houselessness, 78% of which were unsheltered and living on the streets in a camp or vehicle because there are not enough beds available in shelters. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, numbers are likely to have increased due to layoffs and the resulting inability to pay rent.  Despite this, the City of Santa Cruz has implemented no programs to assist these residents in accessing food. The city recommends donating to existing private organizations directly and gives a few grants per year to programs dedicated to helping the houseless.

There are options offered by other entities, though, each with their own barriers. Children attending schools in the area can receive free or discounted lunches through the National School Lunch Program, a country wide, federal program. Their adult guardians cannot partake. There are privately owned food banks and food pantries that offer pick up days and the unsold leftovers from farmers markets are free if you know which parking lot to show up to on Wednesday nights. Unfortunately, these resources both require some sort of transportation for both the attendee and the attained groceries. Many houseless in the Santa Cruz area only bike or walk. This all suggests that the reality is that people who need this food cannot access it easily. Calfresh, a federal program run using EBT credit, formerly known as Food Stamps or SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), is accessible through application. Eligible residents receive free groceries, including fresh produce. Seniors older than 60, disabled people, and houseless people are allowed to use EBT credit at certain restaurants and grocery stores. Even though legally Calfresh cannot require a houseless person to present proof of residency, it is listed as required to submit the application, deterring many from applying and benefitting from this program. They may lack the ability to properly store and cook food, too.

So how do the houseless in Santa Cruz eat? Thankfully, there are organizations that have made it their duty to provide for those who struggle with food insecurity in their community, the most world renowned being Food Not Bombs, and the most recently established being Santa Cruz People’s Kitchen.

Food Not Bombs

I talked to Keith McHenry, cofounder of the international Food Not Bombs Movement, over email. McHenry, along with eight other young adults, started the collective in Massachusetts in 1980. He explains the birth of the organization, “I was a produce worker at a natural food store in Cambridge and started to take the food I removed from the shelves to the public housing projects a few blocks away. One day the people I was sharing food with told me that the new building across the street was designing nuclear weapons. This is where I was inspired to coin the name Food Not Bombs.” 

Inspired by a discarded poster that said ‘It will be a great day when our schools have all the money they need, and our air force has to have a bake-sale to buy a bomber,’ McHenry and peers wore surplus military uniforms while running bake sales and rallied friends and hungry people from shelters to form soup lines reminiscent of the Great Depression as a form of protest. 

“We discovered that this was a great way to start conversations about hunger and war,” McHenry states. “Those who came to eat told us there was no food for those without housing and suggested we do this everyday. We quit our jobs and dedicated our days to recovering food, delivering most of it to public housing projects as a form of both street theater and direct service.”

Logo used with permission from

Today, the organization runs on the following three main principles outlined on the website:

1. Always Vegan or Vegetarian and Free to Everyone

2. Each Chapter is Independent and Autonomous and makes Decisions Using the Consensus Process

3. Food Not Bombs is not a Charity and is Dedicated to Nonviolent Social Change.

McHenry emphasizes that free to everyone means exactly that – it doesn’t matter if someone is rich, poor, stoned or sober. They will be served by Food Not Bombs. 

It may be hard to believe such a wide spread, successful organization is run completely by volunteers using donations. “We have volunteers that live unhoused, travelers, college students, workers, disabled people and retirees. We also have volunteers from many ethnic, cultural, gender identities, ages, and races,” McHenry describes. Volunteers coming together from all walks of life are what have made this endeavour so successful, and McHenry is the force that pulls them all together. 

“I answer the tool free Hunger Hotline and connect people with their local groups so they can get food or help volunteer,” McHenry reveals one of his many responsibilities. 

McHenry clarifies the services of Food Not Bombs,“We provide meals to at least 100 people a day everyday here in Santa Cruz. We also provide groceries to the undocumented community. We can have as many as 200 people stop in on the last weekend of the month and this number is growing. We also share clothing, masks, books and provide other survival equipment and help with charging phones. We need support organizing the defense of those who live outside from the cruel policies of the city and county such as the ticketing and towing of peoples vehicular homes and the intimidation, arrest and forced relocation of people for living outside.”

Food Not Bombs provides food and other necessary services with no barriers, no application or age requirement, and in Santa Cruz at least, in a central, easily accessible location. Some people’s lives depend on the ability of this organization to operate. “God bless you!” a regular attendee of food serving hours graciously says to each and every volunteer as they gather as many meals, snacks, and packets of sugar they can carry. Unfortunately, some agencies do not see the continuation of services as vital and try to prevent Food Not Bombs’ distribution. McHenry discloses, “Attacks by the city and county interfere with our work. They evict us from our sharing location without notice, fence off the areas and smear our work in the local media.” This happened recently in Santa Cruz. Police cleared the established sharing area on September 30, according to a local activist. The new sharing location is in the parking lot of an abandoned Taco Bell, just across the street from the old one. 

He continues, “They also aggressively ticket our volunteers when delivering food and clothing and have even taken our vehicles.”

In the past, Food Not Bombs has faced violence at the hands of police. McHenry remembers, “ In 1988 in San Francisco local authorities made over 1,000 arrests, confiscated our food and equipment, and beat our volunteers as they shared meals. The police have also arrested our volunteers in Los Angeles and Arcata, California, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, and Orlando, Florida. Police have also arrested volunteers in Moscow, Russia, Minks, Belarus, London, England and a number of other cities around the world. The authorities have killed at least 4 of our volunteers in the Philippines where they are now facing the new Terrorism Act. I was clubbed between the eyes, had two surgeries and still suffer from the 1992 beating. I was taken to police headquarters where my clothing was pulled off, I was lifted and smashed to the floor until my ligaments and tendons were torn and placed in a tiny stress position cage for three days on three occasions. I was framed on the California Three Strikes law and I faced 25 to life in prison.” 

Famously, ACLU Associate Legal Director Ann Beeson asked in court in defense of Food Not Bombs

“Since when did feeding the homeless become a terrorist activity?”

Along with traumatic physical encounters, Food Not Bombs has undergone a lot of abuse at the hands of bureaucracy. McHenry spells out exactly how, “ The authorities know we are loved by the community so this makes it difficult to drive us away. I have personally participated in hours of meetings, spoke during public comment in the years before the pandemic and even met with Mayor Cummings during the first week of the pandemic. Justin Cummings’ vote to evict Ross Camp [a large tent city by the Santa Cruz Ross] resulted in deaths, sexual assaults and rapes. I met with Chief of Police Andy Mills in his office after he was first hired. I have met with city counsel and that gets us nowhere. At this point Sandy Brown is the only elected official in Santa Cruz that is supportive of the rights of the unhoused and poor and she has no power.” 

Evidently, the government of the city of Santa Cruz has decided to hurt rather than help the houseless community in their jurisdiction in a number of ways, including providing no effective assistance in facing food insecurity and even opposing and restricting access to food. Thanks to the resilience and generosity of Food Not Bombs, community members of Santa Cruz are able to survive and may not be able to otherwise.

Santa Cruz People’s Kitchen

Santa Cruz People’s Kitchen strives to feed the people of Santa Cruz. After the CZU lightning complex hit Santa Cruz County in mid August of this year, massive wildfires started that resulted in heavy air pollution for weeks and evacuations of many homes. The very same sparks ignited the founding of this team of volunteers committed to distributing delicious, home cooked meals. Every other weekend, volunteers drive trays of fried chicken, cornbread, pies, and much more, all made with organic eggs and dairy products, to established houseless camps around Santa Cruz and serve the community. The money for this operation is completely crowdsourced.

Courtesy of SCPK Instagram

Each distribution weekend, a team of people who care and are dedicated to aiding the community get to work. The first step, preparation, happens in a large kitchen, rotating between members’ homes. Currently, the organization is trying to secure a permanent industrial kitchen for future preparations. After, a team member drops off the prepared trays at other members’ houses where they use their own ovens to bake each tray. The next day, members gather at a predetermined location to assemble full meals from the baked trays. Then, members drive to houseless camps in Santa Cruz and distribute the meals while making personal connections with those within the organization and within the camps being served. Those relationships result in the team wanting to do more and provide more, like begin a garden to provide fresh produce to hand out along with assembled meals, which is currently underway.

Sal, the founder but not the leader of SCPK as this organization believes in teamwork rather than direction by top-down hierarchy, explains this kind of aid is necessary because of evictions due to covid or other reasons and fire evacuations. “More people will be forced into the streets and we need to be prepared for that.” Rotating in and out of houselessness is not uncommon for residents and students, yet the police and city make it difficult for people to exist outside and continue to be well fed. Although the UC’s existence initiated the displacement of many residents by increasing the city’s population with thousands of students and those students now face hardship finding suitable housing and food resources themselves, UCSC will not allow organizations to use their kitchens to help the greater Santa Cruz community. When the city and university will not help, this mutual aid organization will. Sal says,

“Keep the people fed. Lift their spirits. When their basic needs are not met, that’s when people turn to harsher methods of coping.”

According to Sal, by not providing access to food, the city shows it does not have its residents’ best interests at heart.

In the future, Sal dreams of opening a restaurant where payment is based on a sliding scale and no one is refused a meal. Customers would pay what they can and recommended prices would be based on the cost of ingredients alone. After working in many restaurants, Sal became sick of the profit to the cost of ingredients ratio. “People don’t know how much their food actually costs,” he says.

Courtesy of SCPK Instagram

“Together, our community has more power. This organization is for us, by us. It’s not a charity, it’s about solidarity,” Sal explains. Until the pandemic is over, Sal states Santa Cruz People’s Kitchen’s top and only priority is to “put out food.”

Why Do All This?

A member of Santa Cruz People’s Kitchen asked rhetorically, “Why are a bunch of volunteers and college kids feeding the city while the adults in power do nothing?” In other words, why is the community responsible for ensuring that citizens’ basic needs, the foundational layer of Maslow’s pyramid, are being met and not the government? The inaction of the government on a city level not unique to Santa Cruz, clearly, because of the widespread need for food organizers. Within the United States, there are about 500 active chapters of Food Not Bombs and 500 more worldwide in over 60 countries, along with many other local, food focused organizations. In the words of Keith McHenry from Food Not Bombs, “I want to do what I can to end war, violence, poverty and hunger and this seems like the most effective way I can participate. I also love the people I get to spend time with while volunteering. I have dedicated my life to removing capitalism and doing what I could to build a sustainable compassionate future.”

Food Not Bombs Locations as of November 2020, used with permission from

Interested in Learning More or Helping Out?

Food Not Bombs

Stay in Touch:


Santa Cruz People’s Kitchen

Stay in Touch:


Venmo: @santacruzpeopleskitchen

Cashapp: $scpeopleskitchen


Looking for big cars and big kitchens and volunteers in the area!

Other Resources

Food Not Bombs PO Box 422, Santa Cruz, CA 95061 USA

Association of Faith Communities  (Mail only) 532 Center Street, Santa Cruz, CA 95060

Day and Night Storage at 150 Felker Street Suite H, Santa Cruz, CA 95060 USA  831 588-9892 – store unhoused people’s property for free, provides weekly showers, and open warming centers at local churches on cold nights

Warming Center Program’s Footbridge Services Center

N.O.M.A.D. Collective for help moving


Interview over email with Keith McHenry

Interview over signal messenger with Sal

“FAQ.” My Benefits CALWIN, 2017, 

“FOODNOTBOMBS.NET.” Food Not Bombs, 

Header image from

“Homeless Rights in the CalFresh Program.”, Legal Services of Northern California, 2020, /#:~:text=CalFresh%20benefits%20for%20shelter%20residents,and%20get%20free%20meals%20there. 

“Homelessness.” City of Santa Cruz | Homelessness, 2019, 

ISITE Software, LLC. “WELCOME TO SURF CITY CAFE!!” Santa Cruz City Schools – School Nutrition And Fitness, 2020, 

Mcleod, Saul. “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.” Simply Psychology, Simply Psychology, 20 Mar.  2020, 

Santa Cruz Food Not Bombs,